Thanks to YouTube and social media, ‘react’ videos are nearly as well-represented on the Internet in 2019 as candidates are in the Democratic presidential field. But when Mystery Science Theater 3000 hit cable in the late ’80s, the idea of watching people watch a movie was mind-blowingly meta. Okay, “people” isn’t exactly correct: the show featured one human, MST3K creator Joel Hodgson, and two robots affectionately tearing into d-list movies with lightning-fast references to everything from Stravinsky to Smuckers jam.
It went off the air in 1996, but over the next two decades its cult fanbase actually increased, eventually culminating in a celebrated 2017 comeback via the Netflix series Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. Currently, Hodgson is reprising the role of Joel Robinson on stage for the last time with Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live: The Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour — naturally, with mechanical puppet pals Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy back in the saddle(ite of Love).
In the midst of a farewell tour that proves his sly wit and bottomless pit of cultural reference points have remained untouched over the years, Hodgson spoke to Billboard about his favorite music moments from the new series and the original MST3K — and how he found out Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fan.
Between the in-movie songs and the various originals you guys have performed during the sketches, Mystery Science Theater has a lot of wonderful music moments. There’s a few I wanted to ask about, but first wanted to see if any pop out to you as personal favorites.
For the Netflix series, we had Bobby Lopez (Book of Mormon, Frozen) write some music for us and it was an amazing experience. He wrote a song called “Our Love Is On Wings (You Can’t See).” We Skyped and I got to watch him compose this song in front of me — it was amazing, he’s really gifted. I really just wrote the lyrics with Elliott Kalan and had a rough idea.
Did you give him much direction?
It’s such a give and take, because he gets to the melody and you go back and forth. It was an idea of mine about a long distance relationship [where] these people really like each other, and then the idea of when they meet, they can’t stand each other. And Neil Patrick Harris [guest star] and Felicia Day [Kinga Forrester on the show] reprised the song on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. So that was my favorite. Also for the very first episode of the Netflix show (Reptilicus), we did a rap that was a trial by fire [for lead Jonah Ray]. It was the very first sketch Jonah and the bots had to do, and he had to rap and handle about 50 props in the song — there were cut-outs of every single character he referenced. Paul [Sabourin] and Storm [DiCostanzo] wrote the music for that — and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Felicia and said he really loved it and was blown away. It’s kind of funny, when Paul & Storm wrote it, they had just seen Hamilton, so it was kind of an homage. So that was amazing and strange that Lin-Manuel Miranda watches Mystery Science Theater.
Looking back to the original series, do any music moments stick out as favorites for you?
Like from 20 years ago? Oh, I don’t remember.
Let me throw a few out. What about “The Waffle Song,” which is a beautifully random thing to do an original song about. Why and where did that come from?
That was so early, and back when we did really long sketches. It was a fun, antagonistic thing, the idea that Crow is this waffle fanatic. He was obsessing about waffles and it was this exploration about how crazy and annoying he could be, so it was an extension of that. I remember we bought all these frozen waffles and made garments out of them, decorated the set with them. Using waffles as building material works really well – it’s like construction paper, you can even hot glue it. It’s a new use for waffles.
The thing about Mystery Science Theater and the way it works, for every sketch there’s always some kind of visual element. And I can always tell when someone writes a Mystery Science Theater sketch but they’re not thinking about Mystery Science Theater is that they ignore the visual surprise in every sketch. You see these and you think, “They’re just trying to pick up a gig, they don’t know MST.” We have a limited production: It’s one set, a lockdown camera, and these robots that can’t move or emote that much, so we always try to build in a piece like that.
What about “(Let’s Have) A Patrick Swayze Christmas”?
Oh my goodness. It was really funny, we got obsessed with the movie Road House. It’s amazing. It represented this amplified reality where he could run as fast as a car. And he had to be a cooler – road houses need coolers – and Patrick Swayze is that guy. We just started riffing on it, and we went around the room riffing on the idea of a Patrick Swayze Christmas in the context of Road House. It’s like any funny idea – there’s a contrast there, Christmas and Road House. Usually while we’re watching the movie, we springboard ideas and they get put on the board – an index card or Post-It note – and then during the writing session, we start with the youngest writer and they get to pick their favorite. So we brainstorm them all and create this ball of ideas, so when a writer drafts one to put in script form, there’s a big bank of ideas already. Their job is to arrange it and surprise the writers with the funny things they do with it. I’m pretty sure Mike [Nelson] wrote that one, maybe he and Kevin [Murphy] wrote the music to go with it.
One of the movies on this tour, which you brought to Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, is Circus of Horrors. It has that song “Look for a Star” in it… a lot.
That song is so weird. It made us so crazy while writing it, because they use it over and over, and it’s such an insipid, uninspired song. It was really making us cuckoo because they kept doing it. Then we started doing some research and found it charted two or three different times with two or three different artists. [Ed. note: Garry Miles’ version reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra took it to No. 19 on the Hot 100, both in 1960].
This was at a really funny time in music’s history. It was just pre-Beatles and all pop music kind of felt like Perry Como schmaltzy, swaggery music — and this was sold to teenagers. It’s so weird and fits this movie so well because this movie is this survey of this crazy, weird idea of a circus where people are getting murdered. We wrote a reaction to it that isn’t the song but is a remedy for listening to the song. Basically the characters are complaining about not being able to get it out of their head, and Tom Servo presents a solution where if you listen to this song, it stops.
That reminds me of the teen singer in Eegah, how his musical numbers just keep happening out of nowhere.
Yeah, Arch Hall Jr.! I got to meet him as an adult, we did Comic Con together. He’s had an amazing life. He’s a pilot now and has the best attitude about that stuff. His dad, Arch Hall Sr., was the guy who produced Eegah and these other movies like The Sadist and Wild Guitar, he produced these movies and put his kid in them. I got to talk to him about the roadshow they used to do – they would appear in drive-in movie theaters and he’d get on the snack building with his guitar and amp and do the songs from Eegah. Richard Kiel confirmed this — I met him later at a Comic Con — and Richard Kiel would walk around the theaters with a big club and bang on the hoods of cars. They had this whole roadshow thing that sounded magical and great. He had an amazing life; they should make a movie out of Arch Hall Jr.’s life.
You’ve mocked plenty of movies, and plenty of singers in movies. So obviously Arch Hall Jr. is cool with it, but did you ever meet anyone who wasn’t? Like what about the guy who sings “Burning Rubber Tires” in Pod People?
No, all that stuff was filmed in eastern Europe, and so those people I’ve never heard from. But yeah sometimes people… you know, actors have the best sense of humor about this stuff. It’s usually just three or four days of their life, and they understand it in the best way. It’s usually people who haven’t seen the show who get nervous about it. Like Joe Don Baker had never seen MST, so it blindsided him that there was a show that pulled out movies that were forgotten and surveyed them all over again. I have a firsthand account of a person who talked to him and he was really offended by what we did. But he’s one of the only ones I’ve heard of, the rest kind of like it – it gives reality to what they do.
And even a second wind.
I think so. We’ve had, like I said, we’ve done appearances with Richard Kiel and Arch Hall Jr. even the little girl in Manos, Jackey [Newman], appeared at our event. And Beverly Garland, who was in It Conquered the World, she’s done some of our stuff. They get a little, I don’t know, social IQ with our show occasionally.
Related to that, I heard online – so I’m not saying I know for sure – that the Sandy Frank song you did made the company angry, and it was tough to license the MST3K Gamera episodes for DVD for a minute.
That one, I think, it feels real to me. Maybe it’s possible – we did do this deliberate song about him – but I don’t know about it getting us from licensing stuff, but I have heard there was some reaction or pushback from him or someone. But I don’t remember.
It’s amazing how hidden a lot of the world was pre-digitally. The world 30 years ago, when we started, cable was in its infancy. There might’ve been things like CNN and MTV but just a few channels. And prior to that, all these distributors had this fantastic gig where they’d sell a local TV station a movie package that had 24 movies. Twelve of those movies you’d maybe heard of, and 12 of those movies had titles that would make you feel like you’d heard of then, but you probably hadn’t. And a fair amount of those were Sandy Frank movies. No one really expected or was keeping track of who was watching these or what it meant — usually it was kids watching it. That was all off the radar until we started doing this. And the weird thing was it really confounded distributors because we went to them, “No you don’t understand, we want your shitty movies.” They thought they were pulling one on everyone, like “Oh, these are high quality moves… unless you really examine them.” It’s kind of like we were going to the cocaine dealer and saying, “no, we don’t want cocaine, we want the baby laxative you mix with the cocaine. That’s what we want.” It was really confusing to people, and I think he was caught in that.